Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sliding Scales: Is Bigger Worse?

Two Buck Chuck is a wine you can buy at Trader Joe's for about two bucks. It's made by Bronco wines, an outfit operating out of California's central valley. They started bottling the wine less than a decade ago. Just recently they sold their four hundred millionth bottle.

The absurdly low price, the incredibly high volume. In the wine industry the numbers that Bronco posts are freakish on both ends of the spectrum. They were the cause of a major uproar when the wine debuted and thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled on stories about them since. But are they the sign of something good or something bad? Is Two Buck Chuck the work of a populist making wine more democratic? Is it a shark's errand that screws grape growers and workers? Is it plain vanilla capitalism, the output of an opportunist profiting on all the hard work others have put into creating California's wine reputation? Or is it a sign of the apocalypse? I can't tell you for sure, but from a distance, it kind of looks like all that and a bag of chips.

The question it raises is: can a food company be big and be good? In our corner of the food industry it's attractive to make small a kind of fetish. The smaller the business, the smaller the output, it can appear more authentic. We get caught up in the romance of the story. Does that make the food taste better? But if Two Buck Chuck is bad — I'm not saying it is, but let's say for argument's sake — is it bad because it's big?

I've been in the caves of Fort Saint Antoine where they store sixty thousand wheels of Comté at a time. Barracks for soldiers who waited out the Prussian wars, now filled with shelf after shelf of identical cheese. The operation is immense. The cheese is amazing. You'd experience the same thing if you visit the aging halls for Parmigiano-Reggiano. Gigantic operation, incredible cheese. Take Zingerman's itself. We used to be ten people. Now we're four hundred fifty. Did we get worse as we grew? Does the food taste better? Is one route inevitable? Must growth be a route to mediocrity? Can companies avoid it? How?

I've got a bottle of Two Buck Chuck here and I'll try some soon. After all, that's one good thing about food. While there are loads of considerations to take into account in deciding to support one kind of business or another, in the end, when the wine splashes across your tongue, if it doesn't taste good it's over.

No comments: